The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics

by Marian Maddox
Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005. $29.95

Reviewer Max Wallace

Maddox's book is sub-titled The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics.  It clearly draws on the experience she had as a Parliamentary Fellow at the Federal Parliament which resulted in her first book, published in 2001 by the Parliamentary Library, For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics.
      Both books were written under difficult personal circumstances which she describes.  It is a tribute to both herself and her husband that they were able to manage these circumstances so that she could produce these two useful contributions to our understanding of how Australian politics has come under the influence of the Religious Right. What follows is a thumbnail sketch and readers are encouraged to read it for themselves to appreciate the quality of God Under Howard.
      The book runs to 319 pages and is divided into three broad sections: 'White Picket Fence', 'Race to the Top'   and 'Market Values'. However, the first chapter, 'Sunday morning at Earlwood Methodist' stands alone and gives the reader an insight into the motivation for this book.  Maddox, like Howard, was raised a Methodist in Sydney. (She points out 'Methodists became Uniting Church in 1977'.)
      Maddox's theme seems to be that while John Howard characterises himself as a low-key Christian, on closer inspection, he's a politician who is using religion to achieve his agenda.  On closer inspection, she finds, Howard's politics do not reflect the social justice style Methodism of the 1950s to which he was exposed. She compares and contrasts this Methodism with eye-witness accounts, including Howard's brother, to make the case that the Howard family was Methodist in name but politically conservative in practice.  The contradictions were not reconciled by Howard - he ran his own course at the church. It seems to follow, from Maddox's point of view, that he's a faux Methodist, and the reader gets the impression that she would know, because she understands what true Methodism was all about.  Where have we heard that before?
      Having sketched this bad faith, and set up her target, Maddox then assembles the ammunition in the following three parts.
      Part One is a valuable exposé of the effects of the Lyons Forum conservative think-tank on Australian politics.  She argues this group of conservative politicians and others set out to put an end to the small 'l' liberal 'wet' faction in the Liberal Party.  Their target was the then leader of the party, John Hewson, who committed the fatal act of sending a message of support to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.  The Lyons Forum was determined to drive every Liberal who continued to think in classical liberal terms, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill - that all people should be free to do what ever they want to do so long as it does not interfere with the liberty of others - out of the party.  For conservatives Liberalism did not extend to gay rights, rather, the emphasis should be on the cliché of Australian politics, though she does not use this phrase, 'traditional family values.'  Alexander Downer came and went as party leader in this transition period because he too, at that time, was not dry enough.
      Maddox then describes with excellent detail how the 1995 euthanasia legislation of the Northern Territory became the issue around which the conservatives advanced their cause.  By this time Howard had been elected as Prime Minister in 1996.
      They then moved into other territory: film and video censorship; restricting IVF to heterosexual couples; encouraging women to stay home, have babies and care for them by tailoring benefits; (she fails to mention cutbacks to the Office of the Status of Women); the attack on the openly gay Justice Michael Kirby by Senator Heffernan (though  she is not convincing as to why a Senator, even Senator Heffernan, would engage in such a strong attack); the opening salvos in the attempt to bring abortion back as a political issue.  The religious agenda was being scaled up.
      Also in the queue for repression were aborigines.  In Part Two she goes back to the time before the 1996 election to discuss, again with useful detail, how the Federal government encouraged their State colleagues to set up a Royal Commission into whether the beliefs of certain Indigenous women in South Australia, which were preventing the construction of a small bridge to Hindmarsh Island, were 'fabricated' in order to frustrate the construction of the bridge.  The purpose of this exercise it would seem was to trade on Federal Labor's sympathy for the Indigenous women to pillory both in the press and to provide a vehicle to ridicule all Indigenous claims that prevented mining.  It was simultaneously a coded appeal to white Australians who harbour the belief that Indigenes are a privileged special

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interest group. She cites one conservative source saying this was the issue that helped them win the 1996 election.  
      From there it was a natural progression, after September 11, 2001, to play the race card in terms of xenophobia.  With an election result in the balance, Howard traded on the Tampa incident, misrepresenting it of course, to win the November 2001 election.  If it is not the privileged within, it is the grasping immigration queue jumpers (not Christians) outside our borders.  With that success behind him Howard could move onto enriching private religious schools.
      In Part Three, Maddox details the synthesis of conservative think tanks with conservative Christian groups.  She traces their role in the rise of the Right in the US.  She goes on to describe how faith-based charities took the place of the Commonwealth Employment Service in Australia.  The last two chapters detail the phenomenon of 'prayer breakfasts', where business and government rub shoulders and how the Liberal Party has moved closer to the new evangelical 'prosperity' new religions where it's not only desirable to become rich, but it's what the Christian god wants.
      The Epilogue, 'Reclaiming Australia's Soul', is an interesting summary of where she sees Australians are currently at in terms of state and religion.  She concludes that not all is lost as there is still a solid core of Australians who will stand up for human rights and social justice.
      A few concluding observations: I don't believe Howard is first and foremost a politician whose personal religion is equivocal but who uses religion to further his conservative political aims.  He is more subtle than that.  One could equally argue that the young Howard who harangued girls at the Methodist church dances over the virtues of 'monarchy and empire' is still there.  He's still the same practising Anglican who regularly turns up at the North Sydney Anglican church on a Sunday sitting in a back row with his minders.  He has said that he would worship in any church.
      A glaring omission [our emphasis] in Maddox's book is that she completely overlooks the fact that Howard was Treasurer and Respondent in the State Aid case in 1981 when the High Court decided, as I pointed out in AH No 77, Autumn 2005, that there is no separation of church and state in Australia.  Howard's role in that great, partly sectarian battle is missed. It is an untold story and one that would date his religious agenda back to a much earlier time in his political career.
      To discuss religion in Australia, even in the context of a book directed at understanding Howard, without mentioning how our nascent, secular form of government was long ago compromised by tax legislation favouring religion, and later entrenched by the State Aid and Scientology cases, is to misunderstand the constitutional context in which Howard moves.  It is like trying to explain the movement of the planets without the concept of gravity.
      Secondly, there are examples of where Howard has advanced the cause of religion where no votes are involved: the funding of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, symbolically located almost at the feet of Parliament House in Canberra; she's undercooked on his motives for making an Anglican Archbishop Governor-General for the first time in our history - Howard knew he could do that without breaching the Constitution because he was there when the High Court formalised non-separation  of church and state; the destruction of the Commonwealth Employment Service and its replacement with mainly faith based Job Network groups was a policy steal from the US as far back as Clinton; it's likely churches will be asked to play a similar role in the new Family Law system to deal with relationship breakdown; his defence of an accused Archbishop Pell before there was a mechanism to test the claims against him; the refusal to hold a Royal Commission into child sex abuse in Australia which would inevitably result  in a report damning of the churches etc.
      Maddox's detailing of Howard's religious push in so many areas of policy is better interpreted, I suggest, as the actions of a religiously committed individual [our emphasis] who is finally in a position to realise that commitment - and that was one of his aims all along. John Howard is not one of Machiavelli's Princes cited at the start of Maddox's book   as needing to 'appear' to be religious.  I would argue that   he uses other politicians as stalking horses to raise controversial issues so he appears to have clean hands when there are howls of opposition.  He then magnanimously declares there should be a 'debate'.  This is one step beyond the 'dog whistle' tactic that he also uses, which Maddox details, where he speaks in coded words that xenophobic, homophobic and racist voters understand.  That is, raising an  issue in terms that are not outright xenophobic, homophobic or racist, but impliedly so.  Howard is, I suggest, a truly committed right wing Christian [our emphasis].  He has become the ecumenical Pope of Australia.  But he keeps his hat in the cupboard. He knows that Australia is not yet the 51st state of America.  He knows, as does the Catholic MP Christopher Pyne, who said resignedly, 'in the US, you don't get elected if you don't talk about God; here, you don't get elected if you do.'